America’s Cycles of Change

Why We Can Expect a World War by 2020

Mon, 16 November 2015

New centuries usually bring well-meaning hopes that will usher in a bright new world of peace, prosperity and international cooperation. Don’t believe a word of it. The hard evidence of modern world history tells a very different story. The clash of nations and civilizations is coming on an unprecedented scale.

Look upon patterns of war in Europe as a recurring sine wave. They peak in the first half of every century, then things settle down for the second half of the century, then things heat up again.

It sounds simplistic, but it’s been the pattern of war and peace across the European continent now for 600 years. The Hundred Years War in reality peaked in France in the early first half of the 15th century until Joan of Arc led the national revival that rolled the English back. Germany was torn apart by ferocious peasant rebellions and religious wars in which millions died in the first half of the 16th century. Things quieted down for a couple of generations, but from 1618 to 1648, Germany was virtually depopulated. More religious wars laid waste to much of the rest of Europe until the 1648 Peace of Westphalia ushered in a long period of peace and slow recuperation.

The 18th century began with the wars of the Spanish and Austrian Succession. In the 1790s, France was torn apart by revolution, but it took Napoleon Bonaparte to conquer most of Europe in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, or brotherhood.

There were a series of relatively small wars in Europe in the 1860s that propelled a united Prussia to continental supremacy at the heart of a finally united Germany. But they were small-scale compared with the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny and, most of all, the great Taiping Rebellion in China at the same time.

The first half of the 20th century was the ultimate age of war in Europe. Between 7 million and 10 million people died in World War I. At least 50 million died in World War II — most of them in Europe, or in Japan and China. But after two world wars within the space of 30 years, Europe has since enjoyed nearly six and half decades of unparalleled peace and prosperity.

For 44 years, the European continent was divided between two mighty military alliances organized by the United States and the Soviet Union. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991, the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization has peacefully expanded to include most of the continent.

This is not to say the second half of either the 19th or 20th centuries was peaceful in other parts of the world. Africa and Asia were torn apart by wars of European colonial conquest in the second half of the 19th century and by endless anti-colonial uprisings in the second half of the 20th century. By some estimates, more people died in Africa and Asia in wars in the second half of the 20th century than were killed in the world wars of the first half of the century.

This recurring sine wave-type pattern of the rise and fall of violence in Europe augurs ill for the first decades of the 21st century. It suggests that the kind of major wars between nation-states or alliances of nation-states that that have torn the continent apart in the past could still recur in the future.

It also suggests that moves to reduce the size of European armies and to make them “lean and efficient” along the model that has been fashionable in recent decades for the United States may be ill-suited to the future challenges that the democratic nations of the European Union will face.

Huge and continuing immigration into the European Union from the Middle East, the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa suggest that having far larger numbers of police on the streets of cities to ensure public security may be necessary in the future, and far stronger border defenses along the lines pioneered by Saudi Arabia in controlling annual immigration from Yemen may eventually be necessary too.